“ I ask ‘Why do you do that?’ they say ‘I don’t know. My mom did it.’ … aren’t you curious?”
Our second episode goes to Antonia Santangelo, a zooarchaeologist and anthropologist with a focus on the Black Sea and the ancient Near East. She teaches university classes, travels around the world, and researches what life looked like **way** back when.
Here’s what she had to say about what old bones tell us, how international politics unexpectedly affect her work, and why asking questions is essential to the human experience. Subscribe on iTunes
Antonia: My first dig actually was part of a classroom. If you really want to know the exact first time, it would have been in college, at the Catholic University of America where I first attended school, and I had bounced around a bit.
I was 19 years old, and I was in an archaeology class, and we excavated outside of the Catholic University of America, actually on the campus. That was just learning technique in a field setting, but that gave me my first taste of what it was to be an archaeologist. Take what I learned in the classroom to the dirt. That was very important. Even though I didn’t become an archaeologist right away after that, that has always been at the back of my mind.
The first excavation I actually worked on was in Bulgaria, in Varna, Bulgaria with a team out of that area. They were involved in this initiative called Balkan Heritage. I worked on the sites with the archaeology museum in Varna, Bulgaria.
That was very significant, because even though I’ve always traveled around the world in my mind, I don’t come from a family of much in terms of finance, and I hadn’t been able to leave the country until then. That was actually my first trip out of the US, to Bulgaria of all places. Some of family was just like, “Is Bulgaria a country? I never even heard of Bulgaria.” I loved it. I knew by that point that I was leaning towards working in the Black Sea Region, and Varna, Bulgaria just brought up ideas of my favorite movies. Dracula. And of course, I knew the significance of the findings in that area.
That was my first true excavation as part of an archaeological team.
Jenna: Why does that area matter and why is most of your work focused in that area?
Antonia: In the Black Sea, my work is centralized in that area for a number of reasons.
First of all, I should give credit, of course, to my adviser, Alexander Bauer, who is a professor at Queens College because he is my mentor. He really helped mold me in the days where I decided to really go to grad school. I said, “This is what I want to do.” I talked to him, and him and I had some good talks at Starbucks over coffee and he said, “I have a project in Sinop, Turkey,” which is on the coast of the Black Sea. “I know that you,” him talking to me, “are interested in the ancient near east,” which is an area that I’ve always been fascinated with in general. “You’re invited to work on this project with me,” so that’s actually where I began, going to that region.
Once I started to work with Alex Bauer on his project in Sinop, Turkey, I really figured out what I would specialize in in terms of my doctoral dissertation, which is looking at fish bone remains in the Black Sea Region.
Even in general, beyond the fish bone analysis, I became fascinated with the Black Sea Region as an area of connection. There are six countries that surround the Black Sea now, in contemporary days, but it’s always been an area of very interesting cultural interconnection and very cloudy ancient history.
There’s still lots of questions that can be answered for archaeology that should be given more and more funding. My work and the work of others that I’m affiliated with, we’re constantly trying to understand what the early days of this region was like prior to the Greek colonization period, especially. I just fell in love with Black Sea Turkey, and I had early been to Varna, Bulgaria.
I was fascinated with this region and thinking about trade and how it was such a significant way to pass culture amongst the peoples around this area and how the Black Sea has always been the sad sister to the Mediterranean. The Mediterranean, of course I have great love for that whole region, but the Black Sea has not, in general, been given as much as attention, and it’s deserving of it in my opinion. Those that I work with agree. That is, of course, the main reason why I’m there, but every time I take a trip to the region, I find it so fascinating and beautiful.
I’m really definitely married to it now at this point.
Jenna: What can we learn from animal bones about the past and why is that important for today?
Antonia: Wonderful. Studying animal remains, it’s called zooarchaeology in the United States. You also may see it as archaeozoology but it’s the same practice. I tell my students it’s a marriage of zoology and archaeology. We’re specializing in faunal remains.
Even beyond the bones, we look at scales, fish scales, for example, any type of material that’s from the animal we analyze as a zooarchaeologist. Bones, in particular, they are the main object that I’m looking at in terms of zooarch. It’s important for a number of reasons.
The first reason why one should collect and analyze animal remains from an archaeological site is what you would probably think of immediately – food. What did people eat in the past, and can we learn about this by looking at the animal remains? So it’s not always immediately obvious.
We have to do some analysis, but you can tell whether or not an animal was butchered, if you look for cut marks, et cetera. The context of the animal bones, are they found among, let’s say botanical remains. Does it look like it’s a garbage site, what we call a midden, is a garbage site. Does it look like it’s in a kitchen area? Are we finding it in the area that looks like it was burned? Do we find char, charred bones. Does it look like it was a cooking area? We think about those sorts of things, but food, we want to try to understand what people ate, and what meat they were exploiting.
Also, thinking about depending on the time period and the area of the world you’re in, but maybe your interests are in animal domestication, so when and where were animals first domesticated, and why those animals instead of others and how can we tell this by looking the animal bones? What can we learn about the process of early domestication? That’s another area, domestication. Nutrition, food, what people ate, which goes along with domestication.
Another area that’s fascinating, especially if you study birds, fish as well, but birds usually come to mind immediately when you think about seasonality. If you look at a site and you want to try to understand what part of the year were people occupying the site, if you find especially migratory birds, remains of certain birds, seabirds for example, you may be able to tell by the animal bones what time, what season you’re in. That is an element of seasonality studies. Figuring out time of the year of a site’s occupation.
Also, environmental reconstruction is another major component of zooarchaeology. Looking at what environment would have been needed for these animals to have been living in this region. Just that right off the bat could be very revealing. For example, we’re in Brooklyn here. What if I excavate, I’m pretending, what if I excavate down a number of layers and we go down and we find a lot of deer bone? Well obviously, there are no deer running around right now, so the environment was different then for those deer to have been living in that area. That’s a very, very simple and maybe silly explanation for how you can quickly understand how animals can give you some insight into the environment.
Another thing they could be very useful for, if you find something unusual and it’s not high quantity. For example, let’s say you’re in a mainland, land-locked area part of the US and you’re at a certain point in the stratigraphy where we don’t have the transportation that we have today and you find shark teeth, maybe in a necklace form, and you’re not finding lots of other shark material. It seems to be isolated or maybe you find a few. That, right off the bat, we’d say, “Hmm, how did this get here?,” so animal remains, which of course, this is true for other things, but animal remains very specifically because they need certain environments to survive, could give you an idea as to trade, perhaps, or even thinking about cultural exchange. These shark bones traveled from an area where shark would have been living.
That sparks a whole load of questions, “What were these people doing? How did they get here? Why did they get here?,” et cetera. Those in a nutshell are some of the main reasons why animals bones are significant. I can go on and on. You can do chemical analysis on bones. You can get even down to oxygen isotopes levels or carbon-14. Because they’re organics, you can use them for dating as anything that was living at once. You can figure out how much carbon is left, and you can determine time period.
Those are minor in my opinion compared to these other broader questions that are so exciting.
Jenna: Like what?
Antonia: Thinking about environmental change and reconstruction.
A lot of archaeology is getting funded out of areas that are focused on climate change because that’s what we’re worried about. Actually, you did ask why is it important to study animal bones for us today? Even beyond academic stimulation, why would anyone be interested in this in general?
We can learn from the past, right? We all know that, but we can think about what animals may have not been able to thrive in certain environments due to maybe climate change, environmental change, human exploitation of resources, deforestation, for example. What have we done to make the environment change? By looking at the archaeology and the animal remains, that could give us some evidence to what was there, and then if we see it disappear at some point, then we see there was a change. Then that opens up a whole avenue of questions.
There is actually a lot of funding given to archaeology now. If you’re interested in analyzing human ecodynamics, thinking about human-environmental relations and how animal remains can be a tool in that. That is really a hot topic.
Another topic that I personally, not that I’m not interested in that, because that is a big part of my research – I’m fascinated with food and identity. It’s a hard thing to get at, identity, when you’re doing archaeology because you don’t have the people to talk to like you do when you do ethnographic research, which I do take part in quite a bit. I’m interested to know what foods were chosen and why, and were they… Sometimes you see certain fishes or animals depicted in arts and coins. Obviously, they were chosen for some reason beyond just that they were filling their bellies up with this food. I’m very fascinated with food, animals and what they mean to people in a very personal way. What do they mean to identity and certain cuisines. That’s another area that I love to dive into in terms of my anthropological research in general, so thinking about animals and identity.
Along with that, in that same train of thought, religion and animals. Certain animals were worshiped. Animals in Egypt were not mummified… They weren’t all mummified. When you find a mummified animal, like a mummified cat, that was done for a reason. That was a very expensive process, very involved process. Something like that, if you see an animal mummified in an area, that is very significant. Why? Why this animal? That must have been an important animal to these people. Also, let’s say you’re excavating a burial and you’re finding an animal, let’s say a dog, canine, in the same context of a human, maybe even very close to a human, that’s very significant. Why? Why would this animal be buried with a human? Was this a pet? Was this something sacred? That’s something else that… You could definitely get into animals and ritual and religion and symbolic, symbolism animals in different cultures. That’s one of the main areas that I’m fascinated in.
Jenna: How did you find yourself in this career?
Antonia: That’s a very good question. When I first went to college, I was a Greek and Latin major, ancient Greek and Latin major, so a classics major. I quickly realized that archaeology, which I had to take as a classics major, obviously, that’s one of the main avenues you get into when you’re doing classics, was fascinating to me.
I did that for about a year in school, and I also took other courses in philosophy and such, but I was 19, 18, 19. A lot of things are going to my mind, and I wasn’t sure what I was going to do in the future. I wound up actually leaving that school I was attending, going back home, thinking about things, and then just going to school to learn business. I took classes in music and business. I got an associates degree in this, and I’ll tell you this in a very, very fast manner, but I spent few years studying business and music in terms of not learning instruments but music promotion, music business.
I found myself in the music industry, at CMJ. When you think of that, you think of college music, so thinking about Indie Rock… I was working in the Indie Rock music scene for about five years in different capacities, but CMJ was my first main position in this world.
While I was doing it, I had lots of fun. I’m not going to lie, and it was wonderful and I love music. It’s a big part of my life as well, but I found it unsatisfying at some point. And I decided to return to school. I went to Hunter College, and I decided to go back to what I was originally studying but in a slightly different way. I went into anthropology.
Anthropology spoke to me because it’s so encompassing. I have so many interests which is a problem. I have too many interests, but anthropology is the study of humanity. So I can find myself studying all my interests and be in a particular major, so that actually made sense to me. I could study archaeology, language, history, music, art, and it’s actually in one major, anthropology.
While I was at Hunter, I took archaeology, cultural anthropology, biological anthro, linguistics, the whole cuisine of anthro, but I found myself leaning more towards archaeology at that point because the ancient and the pre-historic world has always been a draw to me.
When I go into a museum, even as a child, I was always fascinated by the pottery and the dioramas, for example, at the Natural History Museum. The American Museum of Natural History in New York has always been one of my favorite places. I just found myself fascinated. I would sit there in the museum with a notebook writing down notes about the material from the wall, the wall text. I was that nerdy kid in the museum, and I just loved it. I’ve always been a person to ask questions. I wanted to know everything. My mom used to actually be annoyed with me as a kid, because I would just ask constantly, “What is this? Why is this? Why is this called this? Why is this …?”
I realize that at my core I’m really a detective, and I find myself most interested in investigating the past. Now it’s slightly changed, but I find myself… Well, still actually the past.
Anthropology made the most sense. Archaeology spoke to me very strongly. That’s really… I haven’t turned back now. Once I went that direction, I decided to stay in that vein. While I was in school, I took my communications business background and became a publicist at the American Museum of Natural History, which was my bridge career, I call it. I was there for three years, and I hope to return in some capacity someday, because it has a very special place in my heart, but that was my bridge from my old career to my new career. Once I entered the PhD program at the Graduate Center at the University of New York, I left the museum, but I haven’t truly left them. I’m always returning.
That, in a nutshell, is how I ended up in this position.
Jenna: Why animal bones?
Antonia: When you’re studying archaeology and you’re thinking of going to grad school, you need to have a specialty, and also, of course, a region that you’re going to be working and that would be your regional focus. Again, I had a little difficulty figuring out what I would like to specialize in, but I’ve always been fascinated with the natural world, animals in particular, as a child.
Actually, my childhood dream was to be a veterinarian. That dissipated as I grew older, but I have a very, very close connection to animals. And I thought, “Well, this would be a fantastic specialty for me. It would bring back my childhood dreams in a different way.” As I studied in school, I realized zooarchaeology was something that answers questions that other methods can’t answer, and those are the topics I mentioned a little while ago.
I found it to be something fascinating and an area that could use more academics. To me, that was a big, big draw. Where can I position myself that I can be most useful to this discipline? That is actually, to jump ahead, why I’m studying fish, because fish are, I would say, the most unpopular of the faunal main analysis direction you could take. But it’s also giving me a lot of work, which is what I wanted and future projects. It’s something that not a lot of archaeologists, zooarchaeologists even, specialize in. So that is really how I ended up doing zooarch.
Jenna: You have bone collections.
Jenna: And you’re currently putting one together for the Black Sea Region?
Jenna: Why is it important to have a bone collection? What does that give to you, to the scientific community, to have it?
Antonia: That’s a really brilliant question, because this is essential.
When you’re studying zooarchaeology, first of all, as a student, you always need to learn from a comparative reference collection.
Let’s say I want to learn deer bones, I would have to study various deer skeletons. You want to understand what the bones look like in a disarticulated manner, so bones separated. You want to look at them from every angle. You want to learn those bones.
You also want a variety of specimens so you can see the differences and what’s most common and what are some differences, maybe, that are just on an individual level. You want to be able to understand what the bones look like across the board to get a good sense of “if I’m excavating and I find a bone that looks like this, how will I know?” You have to have been trained in it.
Even the most seasoned zooarchaeologists go back to a collection at the end of the day to analyze what they’ve excavated, because they want to be sure, to a certain point, that they are giving this bone that they’re finding, this fragment… Usually you’re dealing with fragments in an archaeological excavation… You want to give it the most accurate identification as you can.
First of all, you need it to learn and you also need it to do your work on moving forward. That way, you can be confident that you’re identifying the remains at the site to the best of your ability. You never want to guess. You may say this bone is not identifiable because I don’t have the part of the bone that would be most useful, so then at that point you say, “Well, maybe this is a mid-sized terrestrial mammal and you leave it like that, and that’s totally acceptable, because you’d rather have something like that than say, “Oh, yeah, this is this, blah, blah, blah,” and then you’ll have some inaccurate information. You need a comparative reference collection to do your work properly.
When I started to do this work with my advisor, Alex Bauer, in Sinop, Turkey, even though we weren’t excavating at that point, I knew that I would be specializing in fish bone remains at some point, and that that’s what I wanted to be my specialty in terms of my dissertation.
As I was doing my research and learning, I realized, “Hey, there’s no reference collection for me to study with.” Believe me, I looked. First of all, in the US, there aren’t any specialists that I know of that I have been able to locate that are experts in Black Sea fish zooarchaeology. Even in the Black Sea region, it has been difficult to find specialists. I’ve traveled in the region, and I haven’t been able to find a collection to work with.
What I started to do as soon as I figured this out is I literally started to buy fish at the fish market, take the bones from my dinner plate at a seafood restaurant, clean them, dry them well, and take lots of notes and photos and measurements and catalog them and have my own strange museum collection.
I say strange, because it’s housed in my apartment, because that’s where it’s going to stay. It’s my collection, and I will share it, which I will explain in a moment, but it’s my collection. It doesn’t belong to any university or institution, because I literally took every fish and boiled or cooked that fish and took those bones apart and went through that whole lovely process to have these dry bones and label them carefully. That’s what I use to educate myself.
But you asked about sharing with the community, and that’s perfect, because that’s what I’ve also been working on. This is, by no means, a project that has been completed, and it probably will never be complete, because you can always improve your comparative collection with more specimens.
What I’ve started to do, and it’s something that I actually need to put some more legwork into moving forward now, is I’m digitalizing this physical collection of bones. I’m scanning the bones. I have photos. I’m taking photos of the bones, scans of the bones, and I’m putting them on a multimedia web site. This project I’m calling the Black Sea Fish and Mollusca Project. I say Mollusca, because also down the line, I’ll be adding more and more shells of mollusks. That’s another area that I haven’t spent as much time with compared to the fish, but that’s another area that I’m working with. I want this to be a collection with the shellfish and fish of the Black Sea region. When I’m ready to fully truly launch this project, one would be able to visit this site, which will be under the URL Black Sea Fish studies. That will be the web site address.
Once it’s fully launched, one would be able to visit the site and look at the specimens that I have in my collection and click on them and be able to zoom in on different bone elements. For example, they can zoom in on a different vertebra of a fish and look at the different angles. Even though nothing is better than having the physical bone in your hand when you’re analyzing archaeological material, it’s better than nothing. If you’re an archaeologist in Ukraine and you have some fish bones from the region in your archaeological site and you have no idea, if you can go to my site and get a sense of maybe what you have, then I would be extremely happy. It’s something that I built initially for myself to be educated, then as a tool for myself. I said, “Why not share this with the community?”
Down the line, this is a long-term project for me, I actually hope to invite others to submit to it. It doesn’t have to be from an archaeologist. It can be from a fisher. I say fisher, not just fisherman, because women involve themselves in such pursuit as well. If they could contribute to me, if they want to send me a skeleton or take pictures and add to my collection, it would make it even better. That is what a reference collection is built for in zooarchaeology.
Jenna: Do you focus on a specific time period?
Antonia: In terms of my dissertation and what I have been working on primarily, I’m looking at sixth century B.C. and thinking about early Greek colonization of the Black Sea region. That is really what I’m working on in terms of my dissertation, but as I’ve been moving through my research for the last seven years, I do see myself moving more and more into contemporary ethnographic research. And looking at what people are consuming in terms of seafood in the Black Sea region, primarily in Turkey, which is where I find myself to be most attracted to.
What are they eating, why are they eating it, and how come it seems to be so significant in their culture? I guess, to answer your question, academically in terms of archaeology and what I’ve been working on in terms of my dissertation, around about sixth century B.C., but I find myself more passionately working on contemporary studies and more recent time periods.
Then, of course, moving backwards to find the beginnings of the fascination with certain fishes in the Turkish culture, but I’m looking at doing more and more ethnographic research moving forward.
Jenna: Why are you drawn to Turkey?
Antonia: First of all, it started with my advisor in terms of working there, but I’ve always been interested in that region.
My family is actually of Italian descent. We’re American-born. I’m a born-and-bred New Yorker, but I’ve always found myself fascinated with the ancient near east, Mesopotamia, the fertile crescent, so Iraq, Iran, Syria, and I can’t work in these areas.
First of all, I love Turkey, and I’ve become more and more in love with it, but I would also love to work in Syria or Iran, Iraq, but I can’t go there. It’s too dangerous, unfortunately, political problems. I can’t work there at the time. Maybe in the future it will be different, but I wanted to be in that area of the world.
It just so happens that my advisor gave me this brilliant opportunity to begin working in Turkey, and I fell in love with the culture. It’s such an amazing place.
I haven’t been everywhere, obviously. I’ve worked in the Black Sea in Sinop. I’ve done research in Trabzon, which is also on the coast of the Black Sea. I’ve spent time in Izmir and, of course, in Istanbul, and I want to do more and more traveling.
The people, their passion, their beauty, their amazing history, the architecture, the colors, the food. I love the language. It’s a place that has such a brilliant, brilliant history. When you’re in Istanbul, part of you… you’re in Europe, the other part, you’re in Asia. It’s really just a beautiful place to be where you’re on these different amazing landscapes, where one moment you’re in Europe, one moment you’re in Asia. It’s just brilliant. I find myself belonging there.
When I’m in Turkey, I don’t want to come home. I love it there.
It’s actually maybe difficult to explain in words. It’s a feeling, a sense, like maybe I had a past life. Maybe I was a Turk in my past life, but I find it to be a brilliant place to archaeological end, ethnographic research and the music, the art, the culture, the people. It’s a place that I will never not go to. Hopefully it will never be a problem where I can’t go. Hopefully our political relations will always remain positive between the US and Turkey, because I don’t see myself ever not visiting and spending time there.
Jenna: One of your sites recently had some political problems.
Jenna: Can you talk about that and how that impacted your work?
Antonia: Sure, yes, a very significant issue.
My dissertation is actually not in Turkey. The research that I’ve done archaeologically for my dissertation has actually come out of eastern Crimea, and it’s because excavating in Turkey is a very difficult process for an archaeologist, and the timing didn’t work out for me in terms of where I wanted to be in my program for me to wait for an excavation in Turkey, so I actually answered what you would consider a cold-call e-mail on a zooarchaeology mailing list, looking for someone to analyze fish bone remains in eastern Crimea with a team out of Saint Petersburg, Russia.
I did go to eastern Crimea to Kerch, Ukraine, met the team and visited various sites, primarily the site of Myrmekion, which was a very important Greek colony, which had a beginning in the sixth century B.C. as a Greek Colony and is known for wine.
My dissertation will reveal the significance of fishing. I don’t want to jump ahead. You have to wait for that to be published, but it’s a very fascinating site, very close to Panticapaeum, which was another important entity in the ancient Greek world in the Bosporan Kingdom. There’s a lot of richness in that region in general.
As I was working with this team, the conflict between Russia and Ukraine started to emerge over eastern Crimea.
The way I’m working is actually unusual, perhaps. I’m more of a consultant than part of the team, so they can excavate, keep the fish bone remains for me, and then I can do my analysis. Luckily, I was able to work in Kerch, Ukraine and do 90% of my fish bone analysis for my dissertation prior to it becoming a hot political problem zone. When this issue emerged, I was actually planning to return to Kerch and was not able to, because it was not going to be safe for me…
I have such a great relationship with my team in Saint Petersburg that they have been keeping the fish bone material on the side for me. Actually, this November I’m going to Saint Petersburg to analyze the materials they’ve excavated since I’ve been there in the lab.
My work has been impacted in the fact that I can’t return to the sites now.
Luckily, I have done the data analysis for the material for the most part. I’ve been able to visit the sites, so I’ve been there. I have a good relationship with the team and I can still look at the material, because the material is going to Russia and I’m allowed to go there. In that way, it has not jeopardized my project, but emotionally it has affected me, because I find myself torn. I’m not sure where I fall in this struggle over eastern Crimea.
I do have a fantastic relationship with my Russian colleagues, but I also have a great admiration for Ukraine, so there’s a lot of mixture in my feelings towards what’s going on there. I hope it becomes a peaceful zone and the residents are happy in the future.
You never want to see conflict like this. It’s difficult. It’s difficult to be working with a team that is on, especially from the American point of view, on the negative side of the conflict, because I only have had positive relations with my Russian colleagues, so I don’t want to talk ill about Russia.
I don’t, and they know this, I don’t agree with what’s happened there, but I try to stay neutral. Let’s put it that way.
Jenna: Can you tell me about your tattoos? It seems like there’s some symbology with the one on your left arm.
Antonia: Yes. I’ll tell you about my other tattoos first.
There’s one of a skull, a black skull on my right arm behind my shoulder. Even though it’s all black, it has these flames around it. It’s actually in honor of my, I would say, maybe my all-time favorite artist/musician, Jeff Buckley. Because this is the drawing that he had done that was affiliated with his Mystery White Boy tour. Anyone who is a Jeff Buckley fan, when they’ll see my tattoo, knows which skull this is. That’s in honor of him. To me, I’m very careful when I think… I don’t get a tattoo for no reason. I only have the three that you’re seeing here. There’s a lot of thought behind them. To me, this represents Jeff Buckley, but even beyond that, music, which is a great love of mine. Ever since a child, music has been a huge part of my life. That, to me, symbolizes music through Jeff Buckley.
Beneath that, I have roses, two roses that are big and blue, with some pink and the black leaves. This is in honor of my maternal grandmother, who I’m named after, Antonia Marie Lasentra. Her maiden name was Mazza. She died when I was five, but I’m very… Even right now, even though I’m an anthropologist, archaeologist, scientist, I’m a very spiritual person. I feel my grandmother with me always, and I loved her. Even though she passed away when I was five, I was very, very close to her, and I still feel a loss. This is actually in honor of her, because she loved roses. She loved blue, and this particular blue, which my sister teased me about when I told the tattoo artist, she was in with me, I said, “I want Virgin Mary blue.” He understood what I meant. She was like, “You’re so weird. Who says that?” It’s that particular blue that you usually see with the Blessed Mother in Catholic churches. It, to me, is a very innocent, pure color that I wanted to be affiliated with my grandmother…
On my other arm, this is a relatively new tattoo. It’s a lion. And it’s a particular lion. It’s a depiction of the Lion from the Procession of Ishtar in ancient Babylon. It’s actually the lion you would find in those processions. If you google, “Lion Ishtar Babylon,” you will find it immediately. It’s a very famous lion. The background of this lion on the processional way is actually a very similar blue, but this sort of near eastern Mesopotamian type blue that I wanted on my lion, so the mane and the bit of the tail is this blue to keep it in the depiction.
I asked the tattoo artist to actually give my lion the appearance of being made of brick, which I think he did a fantastic job with. This lion represents a number of things to me. A) Yes, archaeology, ancient worlds, the love of that, the Near East, ancient Near East.
Also, there are other depictions that I could have picked, other animals, or I could have got a goddess or something else. But the lion, in particular, because I’ve always been close to felines, cats in general, and I feel like it’s almost my totem animal… Even most recently, I found myself being drawn more and more to lions and lionesses. It seemed to be the right time to get something. When I decided that I wanted to get a new tattoo, this immediately popped into my mind, and I’m in love with it.
Thanks for asking, because these are very special to me, these tattoos, yes.
Jenna: We live in a digital world.
Jenna: When you were younger going through museums, you’d look at dioramas and these artifacts and these pieces of time from these ancient cultures.
Now many people are experiencing things online. You’re putting together this online collection. You’re spending a lot of time exploring the past. And it’s not just the recent past. This is sixth-century B.C., people lived very differently to how we live now. Are there any lessons or are there any things that we can learn from how they lived that we should be more aware of or mindful of today?
Antonia: This is a very, very good question. There’s many ways I could tackle it, but I guess my training in zooarch has me thinking about how people ate and survived in terms of nutrition in the natural world.
It brings to mind a lesson I actually like to give in my class and have the students debate whether or not we are healthier and happier the way we live today, going to the grocery store, buying food, working in an office or wherever you do, make money, buy your food, go home, cook it, or would we be happier and healthier if we were hunting and gathering our food and living very close to the environment?
When I talk about different social units, and I say social units, because that’s how I find it to be the best way to describe it, when I talk about hunting/gathering bands of people, tribes, chiefdoms, pre-modern state states, complication in terms of how we live today. I teach my students in that way, because I don’t want them to think… I teach them in terms of simple to complex, not so-called primitive to civilized.
One of the areas that I use to talk about these different social units is food, how people got their food and whether it’s berries and eggs from a bird’s nest or the way we get our food today. What is better? Can you judge which lifestyle is better, who would have been healthier, those people that lived in this manner?
There are people today that live in hunting/gathering groups, even though it’s more difficult. What is a better lifestyle? What would be a better lifestyle for you, I ask my students? Of course, we always have these debates.
I say to them, “Who do you think has more leisure time?” And right away, they’re thinking, “Well, we do, of course. They’re hunting all day.” I’m like, “Are they really hunting all day? Do they get to rest? Do they get to enjoy life more than you maybe?” We’re all walking around, tripping over ourselves with our iPhones and such. Sometimes I want to live more simply.
I suppose that’s something that I like to really dive into, because I want my students to learn from the past, to see maybe how they want their future to be. Maybe we don’t have to move in the direction we’re moving. Maybe we want to revert to some ways of living that were more popular in the earlier time periods, because perhaps they were healthier or even just ways of making one’s self happier. You have a more peaceful existence, perhaps.
If we want to do that, if we want to live as hunting and gathering peoples, though, we have to make changes, so we have to protect our environment. We have to protect our animals. That, in turn, could spark debates in the classroom and ideas about protecting the environment, sustainability issues, climate change.
So I suppose that is the way I would like to enter that. I think that is one major way we can use archaeology to learn about today and the future. We can look to see how people were living and the way that they structured themselves and see how we want to move forward.
One of the things when I go through this social unit, I have this crazy drawing I do on the board when I go from hunting/gathering to these complicated states. I talk about things that increase, and of course this is very general. Of course, not all people go through this type of change. I very, very strongly tell them this is not an evolutionary directional model I’m drawing. Not all people go through these stages. There are people that live in different manners today, but just to talk about changes in social units in general over time.
I talk about things that increase and things that decrease, so population increases. Now once we go hunting/gathering to growing our own food and controlling how much food we have, we don’t have to travel around and follow the animals and follow the weather, we can have more children and we can stay put. We have more stuff, because we’re staying in one place. We have more possessions. We have more architecture. We have bigger settlements as we move forward as we have more people.
Then we see job specialization. We see people specializing in different things, because now we have to organize ourselves. Along with that, we see hierarchy emerging. When you’re thinking about people that live in bands of hunting/gatherings, they don’t have strict hierarchy, and they’re very egalitarian. They live on a fairly equal level playing field. They share. As we become larger and larger in our social unit structure, we become more complicated, and if we don’t have some sort of order, and of course you can argue this in many ways, you have to have some hierarchy, some leadership. Then, of course, you see these different social classes emerge. And then as you become larger, we want more land, and then we want to take the land away from other people, so you see conflicts emerging. You start to see war. I show my students, when we have these, especially chiefdoms and then pre-modern states, you start to see a lot more material culture, in a positive way that’s because there’s a lot of trade going on.
We see more interactions between peoples, because people are exploring and looking for more land, and they’re meeting up with others and they’re exchanging and trading, but we also see more conflict and war. I spend a lot of time on this in my archaeology 101 course, because I take my students through time, and I try not to preach, but I want them to be aware of things that have changed socially. Who knows what the future will be? Maybe the future will be more peaceful if we learn to live more simply and more egalitarian. I think that was a very long-winded answer, but that’s something I think is very significant as an archaeology/anthropologist to bring forth to my students when you’re talking about how people lived in the past.
Jenna: Going back to museums, when one is walking around a museum, whether it’s The Metropolitan Museum of Art that we have here in New York or The American Museum of Natural History or the Tate, etc., there’s so many great museums out there. Many of the objects in those museums are taken from sites similar to the ones that you have found yourself on, and they are thousands of miles away. It‘s got to be hard, I would think, for someone like you to think about that, because you were in those places and you know what those cultures are like. Yet those treasures in those cultures are not there.
It’s a big debate in the community. Where do you fall in that debate?
Antonia: This is a very, very important topic, and I have a definite answer for you.
First of all, I actually am an advocate of repatriation. If a country or entity wants their material back, I say it should be sent back. I am, though, in favor of, if it’s safe for the material, of traveling exhibitions.
Let me rewind. It’s brilliant that I’m living in New York and I can look at material from ancient Rome. But, and I’m not saying everything needs to go back to Italy, maybe. Agreements always have to be made in this type of debate, but certain objects, if they’re found to be extremely important to a nation, a country, and they want them back, because that’s where they originated in terms of the archaeological site, I think they should be returned. An arrangement should be made for them to go travel and spend time as a temporary exhibition, which they do have, which does exist.
There are temporary exhibitions that occur at, for example, the American Museum of Natural History all the time. You can go look at material, and then it moves on to, let’s say Chicago, and then it will move around in the world if it’s safe for the material. I’m not an advocate of, let’s say, taking fossils that are very, very fragile and putting them on the road if it’s going to damage the material, so it depends on the material. It’s difficult, because we want to be able to go to a museum and learn about the ancient world, but I think there needs to be a balance or agreement.
I don’t think that everything, let’s say at the Met, should be returned to where they originated, but there should maybe be some more balance between the original home of the material and the museums that currently have them now.
Whenever there is a debate, I always am in favor of them returning to the place that they originated, for various reasons. It especially depends on which museum, which part of the world it is.
If it’s a part of the world that could really use tourism money to boost its economy or to help it with its archaeological research itself or the scientific expeditions… If having these important artifacts return to their home and put on display, if that will attract tourism money and help them boost their own domestic research, then that is amazing. That’s brilliant, and I would love that. I would love to see that happen.
I’m sure there are lots of curators that would want to choke me right now, but that is where I fall. I am really the person that would fight for material to be returned, in most cases. If it’s feasible and safe, they should go on the road so that people that can’t travel extensively can see important material. Traveling exhibitions I’m a big fan of.
Jenna: Going back to something that you said earlier about asking questions, how you’ve always been asking questions and more questions and questions about this and that, “What about this,” or, “Why are we thinking about this?,” so you’re a question asker. Were there any questions that you asked recently in either your research or life that you found an answer to that was particularly satisfying?
Antonia: This is a very difficult question…
I don’t know that I’m ever satisfied, first of all. This goes hand-in-hand. I ask questions, and I’m also a researcher.
Even as a child, I would go to the library. I actually never looked up where books were, because I knew the sections. I would go into the library and walk right to the history section. I should have just worked as the librarian as a kid, because I knew where everything was. I’m always reading, researching, and maybe I’m never truly satisfied. That’s what always sparks me to learn…
I suppose, and actually this is interesting. This has nothing to do with my research, but I have a very good friend named Andrew. He’s been teaching me a lot about Elvis, of all things. He’s a big Elvis fan, Elvis Presley fan. I’ve always admired Elvis, but I never thought about him in great detail.
If you think about Elvis, a lot of people think of the parody of Elvis, the jumpsuits, the peanut butter and banana sandwiches, how he died. Unfortunately, these things are what come to mind, right? But Elvis was such a brilliant artist, musician… and…
My friend has done such extensive research on Elvis, and I’ve always been curious about creativity and why people make art and how they make it and the creative process in general. Even though I don’t consider myself, per se, an artist, it’s something that I’ve always been involved in. I’ve always been interested in how people do art. How do they create? How do they make music? My friend and I have had long discussions about Elvis and other famous artists and musicians and how, unfortunately, a lot of them have had sad endings. Have died in a very sad manner. They could be on the top of the world for most of their career, and then all of a sudden they die very lonely in a very sad manner that sometimes gets… That’s all you people remember eventually, how they died, and it’s so sad because it takes away their brilliance.
Through these conversations with Andrew and thinking about how people, like Elvis, were able to do what they did, I guess it started to answer my question about the creative process.
Why do people create, and how do they create? I think it’s really to wrestle their demons and their ideas and work through maybe even their karma. It’s a way to manage their emotions, and that’s how they are able to release what’s inside them. I don’t know that’s always something you can control.
For example, I love art. I love to draw and to paint, but I sit down and say, “I am going to draw an elephant.” It’s going to be the worst elephant you’ve ever seen in your life, because I just said, “I’m going to draw this elephant,” but if I sit down in the evening, burn my incense or I have a little coffee and I say, “I just feel like releasing these emotions, these worries, those anxieties I have,” because I am a very anxious person, and I let my hand paint, move, I realize that eventually I’m making some art and I feel better. I’m releasing those demons and those ideas and anxieties and feelings, and I’m just putting that out there.
This may have been a weird answer, but I feel that I’ve answered the question about creativity recently. I found an answer to that. I think that’s what it is. I think people are creative to work through their demons and their ideas and their feelings and to make sense of it and release it, release it to the world. Unfortunately, there’s so much in these creative souls that when they release it, they’re also making themselves very vulnerable, and then they’re open to society to attack them or to give them drugs and alcohol. You feel maybe too naked when you’re releasing so much as a creative person that I think that’s why so many of these brilliant minds and musicians and artists fall down the dark hole of drug abuse and die in a very sad manner, because they made themselves so vulnerable.
I’m sure this was a very bizarre answer, but I think that’s the only thing right now that came to mind, thinking about the creative process and why people make art and why some people are so good at it and others may not find so easy. I think it’s the people that have so much going on inside. That is their particular release.
Yes. That’s my answer for that. [Laughs]
Jenna: You know those cave paintings where they have hundreds of hands on the wall?
Jenna: I’m trying to think of where that is. Obviously there’s more than one.
Antonia: Yes. There’s a number of caves.
Jenna: Right, so that was even earlier than the 6th century B.C., so we’ve been making art, always.
Antonia: Oh, yeah. Prehistoric. Art is… I’m not sure… You’re probably going to ask me a question but I’m already diving in. Art is a communicative tool in general. It’s a way of communicating ideas and thoughts, so yes, it’s something that humanity has been doing for a very, very long time.
Jenna: … and we’ve been eating for a very long time and we’ve been building things for a very long time. Would you say that there’s still a lot of similarities that we have… to ancient society and back then? It’s just manifesting in a different way.
Antonia: Yes. I think those core elements that emerged with onset of modern Homo sapiens, it’s the same.
We have the desire to survive, first of all. This goes for all natural life. Think of plants. People don’t think of plants as these living breathing entities, but they want to survive. That’s why you’ll see a plant maybe in a crowded forest in this strange angle, because it’s dying to get that sunlight and beat the other plants and trees out for that bit of sunlight, so it has this really strange angle to it. If you really take everything away, we have this desire to survive.
Going along with that, in order to survive, we need to feed ourselves, figure out how we’re going to eat, so that’s something that’s not changed. We may be going to get some fancy sushi instead of knocking a boar on the head, but it’s the same principle. We’re trying to feed so we can survive. In art, there’s lots of debate over the art in terms of the cave paintings, why they were done, why there’s so many animals depicted. Yes, the hand prints. Why? Why are they there?
People think right away ritual, magic, symbolism, but they could also have been a learning library in many ways. Maybe our early ancestors were teaching each other by drawing the animals in the environment. Maybe it was a visual encyclopedia on the cave wall. We’re trying to teach and learn and help others so we can all work together to survive. Then I think as the need to get food has become less… Obtaining food is not as challenging as it once was for some, of course not for all, but we have other reasons to communicate to survive.
Art is a communicative tool, and that has not changed. Whether it’s simply drawing an animal skeleton on a cave wall to communicate what should be hunted or what we wish would appear so we could hunt it or my abstract painting. I’m communicating my feelings to my friends. Maybe I just want them to know how I feel in a very bizarre and abstract manner, but I communicate because I want that connection to others.
Art has never really changed. We have the same ability and desire to do art, and we want to feed ourselves. We want to mate and have intimate connections, biologically so we can have offspring and survive as a species.
If you really get down to it, the core elements, in my opinion, are the same. We’ve just become fancier and more complicated. [Laughs]
Jenna: If you had a time machine… Okay. This is a two-part question. First part, if you had a time machine and you could travel back to any period and any place and time for just one day, where would you go?
Antonia: Hm. You’re probably thinking as an archaeologist I would say my dissertation site so I could have a really accurate write-up, [laughs] but if you really want to know what’s truly in my heart, I would love to jump into a time machine and go to Teggiano, Italy, in the area of Salerno to see my family before they went off to the United States.
I would love to see what it was like for my… This is my mother’s side of the family. They were the Mazza’s in Italy. I would just love to see what the life was like. There’s a lot of mystery in my own family, and this is something I will investigate eventually. It’s sort of my gift to myself. When I finish my PhD, I’m going to trace my heritage, my own personal Italian heritage and do my investigation into my family…
The record-keeping, the stories, there’s not enough for me to draw complete pictures, but I want to see where and how my family lived there, and why did they decide to come to the United States? Why did they leave Italy? What was their life like? What was it like to be a female in Italy, in Teggiano? I guess I have some somewhat romantic notions of it, because I’ve traveled in villages in Turkey and I see how villagers live, and I know my family was probably quite poor, and that’s probably why they moved. They left to find some sort of economic success… is what they hoped… they didn’t really find that at all, but that’s what they hoped. I would love to see where they lived and how they lived and to clear up some mystery of my own family.
I think that’s where I would go first in my time machine, because I want to know more about my family’s history, even though it’s not my Santangelo side, my paternal side, I feel more passionate about this particular side of the family. I guess it’s because of my grandmother, who I mentioned earlier, my Grandma Anne, who I have this tattoo in honor of her. I loved her so much, and I want to know more about her parents and how they lived before they came to the United States, so that’s where I would go. It would be the early 1900s, I suppose. That would be the general time period that I would put into my time machine…
I would put those buttons in. [Laughs]
Jenna: Okay, second part of that question… You’ve always been interested in the Fertile Crescent.
Jenna: You mentioned previously that you went to Turkey, which you can go to, it’s something you can go to as an American woman, but there’s a lot of places in Iraq that you can’t go to. If you could go to any prominent archaeological site around the world, there’s many ancient cities that are still standing somehow today, where would you go and what would you want to learn about that place?
Antonia: All right. I know exactly this answer. Right off the bat.
I would go to present-day Syria to the site of Tell Brak, which dates to approximately 4000 B.C. … Of course, it’s always depending on the level you’re excavating, but in general. In general.
That site was excavated primarily by a team led by Max Mallowan, who was German, around the 1930s. There’s a temple that was found that seems to have been in honor of the Goddess, Ninhursag, who was their Goddess of Fertility, Mesopotamian Goddess of Fertility, and there are lots of little objects, very peculiar little objects that were found in this temple area, which are biscuit shaped, I would say, in general. They have what looks to be little eyes. They’re small. They would fit into the palm of my hand for the most part. Most of them are made out of alabaster. If you go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, there’s a whole case of them in the Near Eastern hall.
There’s numerous, numerous examples of these little objects, which have been termed “eye idols” because they look like they have eyes in this little biscuit-shaped body. Some have what look to be miniature depictions of the eye idol itself in the general body of the object.
So if you picture a biscuit made of alabaster, and then draw two eyes at the top, you get a general sense of what they look like. Let’s say in that sort of belly region you draw small versions of the eye idol, itself. That’s how some of them look. Others have this conical shape between the eyes, a cone shape between the eyes, but there’s something about them that are very… intriguing to me. By the way, if you google “eye idols“, they’ll come up immediately, so if you’re curious to know what these look like, and there are lots of variations on them.
I don’t think they depict eyes. Max Mallowan called them eye idols, but I think they actually depict breasts, and the womb area.
I think in general it’s because, first of all, they’re affiliated with Ninhursag, who is a fertility goddess. Those that have a sort of conical shape, to me they seem to be phallic in their look. Even though that seems strange to have breasts with a phallic symbol associated, to me that’s very… It’s perfect.
If you want to depict fertility, you think about the reproductive organs and the breasts of a mother. That’s usually what you think of immediately when you’re thinking of pregnancy, these full breasts that feed the baby and then the penis of a man. Having these two symbols together… to me, that’s fertility. Those that have the little idols in the body, to me, and of course this is something I’m still debating, but to me that’s like a womb area.
This is something I’ve done research on, and actually I have this paper that maybe now that I’m speaking about it, I better get this sent off to some journals, [laughs] but I’ve been playing with this paper now, I’m sort of embarrassed to say how many years. My advisor would probably be like, “Just finish that already!”
I’m still debating it. But I think because there are many that may not agree with my idea, I think there’s a problem with the fact that they were called eye idols to begin with, because the fact that they were given a name immediately directs one to a certain interpretation. I’d rather they had been called “Objects A from Tell Brak” than eye idols, because they already seem to be telling you these are eyes. When I look at things, I try to erase any preconceived notions. I want to see what I think from the evidence. From what I’ve read and when I’ve researched, I think they actually don’t show eyes at all. That is an area that I would love to go in person to work at the excavations at Tell Brak, so I would like to see what else is there in terms of evidence.
You would never want to excavate to try to support your own theory. You just want to see what’s there. Then if something falls into place that supports my ideas, then so be it, but there’s something that says, “No, no, you’re wrong. These are eyes,” then I would say, “Okay.” Because that’s the beauty of academics. You’re constantly arguing, debating, but that’s an area that I would love to go work in.
Unfortunately, I can’t go there now. But hopefully maybe in the future. We’ll see.
Jenna: I have a feminist question for you.
Antonia: Sure, yes. [Laughs]
Jenna: When you think about ancient cultures and you read about it in the history books, women are married off and traded or… There’s a lot of gruesome history there. But there’s some cultures, and you’d have the best sense of which ones they are, where women, it’s very matriarchal. Do you think that even hundreds of years ago, thousands of years ago, that there could have been a society where there was true equality or has it always been this imbalance?
Antonia: I think I feel the most comfortable answering this in a very general manner, and sort of leaving out any cultural example, because this actually gets to a core issue that I talk to my students about, gender and biological sex in archaeology.
I think that there probably is more equality in the ancient and prehistoric world than we think there was because of the way the excavated material was analyzed by the original archaeologists.
When you’re an archaeologist, it actually goes along with what I said. If you have already a preconceived idea or notion in your mind, it’s very easy to make the evidence tell you what you want it to tell you.
So if I’m a white European male, even in the early 1900s, when I go and excavate material, I would never think “women were powerful warriors or were hunting. Of course the women were the gatherers!”
First of all, gathering brings back more food than hunting, first of all. Second of all, who’s to say the women weren’t the hunters or also hunted with the men? A lot of the original archaeologists would have never thought of such a thing, so they didn’t ask the questions.
A lot of the early archaeology, the documentation of the evidence is not as good as how it is today, so there’s a lot that we don’t know. We have to take the knowledge from what the archaeologists have left for us to read, so we don’t have such detailed notes about the condition and the context of the remains of a site that we would have in an excavation that’s done today. The technology, the discipline was not as sophisticated as it is now. It’s improved, in terms of documenting the archaeological process. Many of these early excavations, even thinking about the eye idols, I have to take Max Mallowan’s word for it that these… look like this or were found here and there, because I don’t have pictures. I don’t have all the evidence. I have selections.
When it comes to men and women in the prehistoric world, first of all there’s a lot of mystery. We don’t know. If we don’t have the material and the evidence to tell us, we don’t know.
I tell my students if we don’t have the evidence that says women were not hunters, only the men hunted, then you can’t answer that question. Then we don’t know.
I think there was more equality in the social units, which is what I like to call societies, when we were more so-called simple and less complicated. I think there was more equality and sharing of tasks. I think as we’ve become more complicated and hierarchy emerged and competition emerges with more population and such, the inequality went along with that. That power struggle.
When you have smaller groups of people and you’re trying to survive and protect your family, I think there’s more cooperation.
As an archaeologist, you have to be very careful when you jump to conclusions about, “Men did this. Women did this.” If you don’t have really solid, strong, across-the-board evidence, you can’t talk about gender in that way.
I like to make sure my students understand gender versus biological sex, because there are cultures that have more than one gender. There’s cultures that have three or four genders or a third gender, let’s say, that a man can be a so-called woman in society for different reasons.
You have to be very, very careful when you think about gender and gender roles in the ancient prehistoric world, because it’s difficult to really be confident without the proper, and this goes obviously more and more with the prehistoric world, but it’s hard to know without the proper evidence. I think it actually probably was more equal, yes.
Jenna: On the whole, what do you want your work to accomplish?
Antonia: My work, I suppose that I want, in general, as a professor and a researcher, in general, I want to promote the idea of investigating our past. It doesn’t have to be the distant past. Even why we do the things we do today. I think it’s extremely important for us to understand where we have come from and why we have certain cultural practices.
Culture is an adaptation.
Not everyone thinks of this. When you think of adaptation, people think of human evolution going from walking on all fours to walking upright, bipedalism. I make sure my students understand, “Yes, this biological adaptation is cultural. Culture is adaptation.” I tell my students, “Why are you wearing that sweater today?” “Oh, because it’s cold.” “Okay, so you adapted to the weather by putting on an appropriate piece of clothing to warm yourself.”
I want my students, and it doesn’t have to be a student, it could be anyone…
I love the idea of everyone questioning and not accepting.
I really detest when people just accept things.
“Why do you do that?” “I don’t know. My mom did it.” “… Aren’t you curious?”
That’s very general. I want to promote the idea of questioning, debating, to truly reflect on who we are as a species. Then more specifically, my research, which is moving more in terms of anthropology into more of an ethnographic vein, I’m becoming more and more attracted to doing interviews and observations with people who are living today. And I’m very interested in food. Maybe it’s because I’m from an Italian family and food’s such a big part of my culture. Memories are associated with food in my family. I can close my eyes and think of a smell and a time period, and it brings back a very special memory. Food has always been a big part of my life.
When I travel and I try the different cuisines of the world, I’m always fascinated on how they developed and why, and why certain foods are preferred over others.
While working in Turkey, because I’m doing archaeological fish analysis, I of course pay attention to current-day fish consumption. I very specifically have uncovered this… Well, uncovered, it’s been around, but personally I’ve uncovered this fascination with the anchovy, in the Black Sea region of Turkey, primarily. In Turkish, the anchovy is known as the hamsi, H-A-M-S-I, hamsi. Not only is it a beloved fish in general in terms of eating it, I’ve noticed it everywhere. In terms of a sports mascot, a giant dancing fish, and I say dancing, because they dance to different traditional music, primarily the horun, H-O-R-U-N, the horun dance, which, if you look that up, you’ll see it’s a very traditional dance, very, very popular in Turkey, and it’s actually depicting the shimmying of the anchovy in the water. I found that to be fascinating.
Then I realized there’s this winter festival for the anchovy, the hamsi. I’m always improving my Turkish, but I can read on an elementary level. I read better academically now in archaeological… but in general, I read a lot of children’s books. That’s how I always learn a language. I start reading children’s books.
I found it in different stories. The hamsi appears and just everywhere, hamsi, hamsi, hamsi. I’m like, “What is this fascination with this anchovy!?” Then I uncovered issues around the hamsi in terms of sustainability and over-fishing. It just sparked so many research ideas. I want my work that I’m really involved with… definitely post-doc, after I finish my dissertation. This is, I’ve already been working on this. I’m working on a documentary. I haven’t filmed anything yet, but it’s being designed in my brain right now, on the cultural significance of the hamsi in Black Sea Turkey and why it’s so significant…. It’s just so interesting.
I want people to learn about this beautiful tradition and also think about sustainability of seafood.
If the anchovy disappears because of poor human practice in terms of fishing and protecting the environment, then what happens to that cultural symbol? How will the culture be affected if there’s no more anchovy?
That’s something that I’m very passionate about right now. It’s actually even lead to me analyzing the Lufer. The Lufer’s the bluefish in Istanbul, which is a very similar situation in terms of its being… It’s in danger due to over-fishing and fishing of the juvenile size. It’s also a very important fish in terms of culture in that region of Turkey. In general, I want to spark questioning of all kinds. Very specific, I want to teach and illuminate the connection between food and identity and also connect it to sustainability of our natural resources.
Jenna: Lately in a lot of the areas that you’re studying in, groups like ISIS are bombing out really important archaeological sites, such as Nimrud.
I’m sure that for many people reading the news, they’ll read that and they’ll say, “That’s a real shame,” right, and they’ll feel sorry about it and then they’ll click to something else, but for someone like you, you’ve really lived this history and you know just the extent of that damage. Why is it so horrible that that’s happening, and what are we losing when it does?
Antonia: This is an extremely important topic and very, very, very close to my heart. Of course this is not, in any way, shape or form overshadowing the loss life, of human life, but when we lose these antiquities, we’re losing our history.
If they have not been documented properly, or even if they have been, we can’t go and see them in person. We’re losing so much. It’s a loss, and ISIS or ISIL, they are trying to erase the parts of the ancient world that they don’t want the future to know about, because they think it goes against their twisted ideologies. They’re trying to erase, and they’re really attacking humanity on a very severe level in my opinion. They are ripping our ancient history from us. They have no right, no right to do such tragic destruction. Like you said, many would just click and they won’t care…
Of course there are other important issues that people may find to be more horrifying, but to me, this is really a powerful evil.
To take away what has survived so long and is such brilliant evidence of where we’ve come as a species, and it’s so selfish. It’s such a selfish, selfish act to destroy and think you have the authority to do that. It’s just disgusting. I can’t even… It’s just so horrifying. I find it to be one of the greatest evils to do such destruction. Thankfully, they have destroyed a number of replicas, but they have destroyed much original material. We do have archaeologists on the ground that when they can get back into these areas, they have been trampled by these terrorists. They’re able to go in and reconstruct and put things back together and as much as they can document, and that’s very important. We have digital backups in these museums and such in most cases, but the fact that someone thought that they had the authority to destroy this immense evidence of our beautiful history is just horrifying to me.
I wish that everyone, even if they don’t have interest in antiquities, would think about that for a little while, because it’s a real great evil that they are taking part in beyond all the obvious slaying of humanity. They’re slaying our history. It’s very, very close to my heart. It’s very powerfully disturbing to me.
Jenna: I know that was really dark. So I want to end on a happy note. [Laughs] What gives you hope for the future of archaeology and for the future of asking these types of questions? What makes you excited, either about digital technology and what it’s affording us or the next generation that’s exciting for what’s next?
Antonia: I think the light that I see in my students’ eyes is the most encouraging aspect.
And I’m not using this old phrase I guess I learned from my mom and my grandma, “throwing flowers at myself”. I’m not praising myself as this amazing professor, but I’m saying I see a difference from day one to day whatever at the end of the semester, where students seem to have been enlightened to archaeology and to the ancient world. I love it so much when I get into the classroom and I’m able to tell a story or draw a diagram or give some material for the students to read that opens their minds and ideas, and they’re like, “Whoa, I didn’t know this.” Just to see that light in the eyes of the students and… in that traditional setting, I’m all for online education, and I have actually been trained to teach online as well. There’s always hybrid courses, and I’m all for that as well, but there’s nothing that replaces, in my opinion, the in-person classroom.
When that student and I can look at each other and I can see in their eyes if they understand, if they don’t understand… If I see that light go off, you really do see that light. You know when a student’s excited or even understanding by just looking at their eyes. If you see a dull glaze, you know they’re just not there. There’s always at least a few students that I know I’ve made a difference. Even if they don’t become archaeology anthropologists, they will have left my classroom with this understanding of the importance of archaeology, at least, and tell their friends and tell their children. Hopefully they will inspire additional archaeologists in the future. I think the students, the fact that they’re in college and they’re actually taking my class, even if it’s something they have to take, which actually never is the case in my opinion, because they can pick other sciences usually, other things that fulfill their requirements, for the most part they’re there because they want to take the class. They’re excited. They’re interested.
The fact that I have students in my classroom in person, flesh and blood, that gives me lots of hope. Yes, digital technology, as I mentioned earlier, yeah, there’s pros and cons to it, but the fact that I can go on something like Facebook and within 30 seconds connect with someone in Iraq and show them the image of a fish bone and then have them comment on… you know I’m making this up, but the fact that I can have this conversation almost instantly with someone around the world through something like Facebook is very exciting, so yes, digital technology and social media as such has some downfalls to it, but I think it’s an extremely exciting avenue for archaeology to take part in. We have been, because we can communicate and share data instantly and debate and make connections and contacts and relationships. Look, the reason why I have this project in eastern Crimea is because I answered an e-mail from someone I probably would never have met.
Because of financial difficulties for him, he probably may have not attended a conference that I would have attended, but we made this instant connection, and look, now I have this amazing project.
So digital media and the fact that I also have students in person, both sides of the spectrum together, I’d say I am very excited about the future of our discipline. Hopefully it will continue to thrive. And it’s my job, even though especially a lot of my fellow adjuncts go and they say, “This is how I’m paying for myself to get through.” We don’t get paid as much as the full-time faculty. Maybe I’m a little strange, but I find myself on a mission. I want to really teach these students something and get them to think and reflect and debate. I don’t want them to take what I say, even, as truth. I want them to debate me. I love when students argue with me, because that gets me excited.
Then maybe… I actually told a student last semester… They said to me, “This is probably a stupid answer…” I said, “First of all, stop that. There’s no stupid answers. Let’s hear what you got to say.” She gave me some brilliant, brilliant thought. I said, “You know what? If you want to sit down, let’s work through this idea, because this could be published someday.” Just the fact… these students give me ideas, so yeah, I’m excited about our discipline in general, and it’s part of my job to keep the excitement there.
Maybe my students don’t become archaeologists, but if they’re educated, they can spread the word and get support for our discipline in general out there. I would feel very happy if I’m able to do my part in that.